Jake Gyllenhaal has been awake for roughly 24 hours, give or take a few winks he may have caught on the fly. Yet the actor is pulsating with an enthusiasm so palpable you could almost touch it. He apologizes for the charmingly mussed state of his hair, and his messy attire of jeans and sneakers. He gulps water from a reusable bottle and quips that given how sleep-deprived he is, he probably isn’t making much sense.

And when told that his level of energy is, to say the least, awe-inspiring, he shrugs.

“This is not tired. It’s great. It’s nice to be having a movie opening and a play opening. It’s a blessing, not tiring,” says Gyllenhaal, 31.

Indeed, the actor has hit his professional sweet spot. He’s starring in the off-Broadway play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, and his performance as a drifter has earned him solid reviews from critics.

And his cop drama, End of Watch, not only garnered Gyllenhaal raves for his turn as a cocky LAPD officer who polices the brutal South Central neighborhood, but also topped the box office in its opening weekend.

Gyllenhaal acknowledges that his career is at a turning point, after a series of films — like 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, 2007’s Rendition and 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — that were, at best, forgettable. So what shifted for him? He’s not sure, but says turning 30 was a factor, as was his parents’ divorce after three decades of marriage.

“I woke up and I said, ‘I’ve had the privilege of being able to do this for 15 years.’ I got so far away from the idea of acting as a real craft to master. I didn’t want to skirt the surface in it. I wanted to learn about myself,” says Gyllenhaal, who earned a supporting-actor Oscar nomination for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. “I wanted to interact with people doing real stuff and have it enrich my life. I wanted to have my work enrich my life and have a life that I was proud of. Not to say I wasn’t proud of it before. There were a lot of things. Many things dominoed into that moment.”

The result is Watch, a role that Gyllenhaal lived and breathed for half a year. He spent five months shadowing police officers to prep for Watch. He went on ride-alongs. He learned to fight. To shoot guns. To deftly handle live ammunition. To, in his words, become a cop in his “own mind,” and do it while forging an authentic relationship with Michael Pena, who plays his partner and best friend. Gyllenhaal admits that he pursued the part and convinced director David Ayer that he could do it.
“I fought for the role.The reason I wanted to do it is because of the heart in the movie and the relationship between these two guys. This movie has so much heart, it’s got a massive beating heart in the middle of it. It’s about two friends. If you took them out of the context of the uniforms, it’s two friends,” he says.

The rewards of making the film extend to his personal life. Today, says Gyllenhaal, he considers Pena (who co-starred in World Trade Center and Tower Heist) part of his inner circle. Pena, in turn, says he and Gyllenhaal text consistently; they’ve spent time with each other’s families; and Pena went to see Gyllenhaal’s play while he was in Manhattan. Initially, though, relations were frosty.

“We didn’t hit it off right away. He comes from a completely different background. I grew up in the ghetto. He grew up in Hancock Park and his sister is an Oscar-nominated actress. My parents were farmers. We didn’t have a lot in common. But when somebody’s shooting a gun two feet away from your head, you gain a little bit of respect for them and you have to trust them,” says Pena.

So is Gyllenhaal anything like his character, a man both brashly confident and sweetly true-blue?

Pena says what’s most endearing about Gyllenhaal is how family-oriented he is, and how much he adores his mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner, and sister, Maggie. And how he’s willing to help everyone be on their A-game, including Pena — who admittedly was out of shape before shooting started.

“He’s a complicated dude, to be honest. He’s really, really smart. He can be goofy at times, but his mind is always going, going, going,” says Pena. “He goes on these epic jogs. He called me up and said, ‘Let’s go for a run.’ And there’s paparazzi shots of us. He’s running all stealth and all you see is me dying. Meanwhile, Jake is like, ‘Whatever.’ ”
Not exactly. Those who know the actor praise his dedication, and his unwillingness to cut corners. During the Watch shoot, Pena recalls how Gyllenhaal would step in and help him navigate difficult scenes. “Good things happen to those who are in movies with Jake. He’s proud of that fact. He’s pretty selfless in that regard, and he wants you to kill it,” says Pena. “There were a couple of times I wasn’t doing very well, he’d pull me aside and tell me, ‘Dude, do you remember that thing you did in rehearsal? Do that.’ His motivation comes from a good place.”

It’s true that Gyllenhaal goes after what he wants. He had made a promise to himself that he would alternate every few movies with a theater production. After making his lauded stage debut in the 2002 London production of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, Gyllenhaal wanted to do theater again — and soon. It took him a decade to make good on his word. After seeing Nick Payne’s play Constellations in London, Gyllenhaal approached the scribe about appearing in his production of If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. Again, he went after the role, because it spoke to him. Gyllenhaal isn’t the first name on the poster promoting the play. Nor does he view himself as the star of it. “He chose a really interesting ensemble play,” says director Michael Longhurst. “He’s obsessive about making this production as good as it can be.”

His character, says Gyllenhaal, is “thinking and doesn’t say what he thinks and he feels the thoughts connecting. His desperation to communicate some kind of honesty, I fell in love with that. It’s a high-energy role, so it requires a tremendous amount of focus and attention. To be able to do what I love the most is the best. It gives me energy.”
Yes, you want to roll your eyes at Gyllenhaal’s unabashed exhilaration and all that talk about work ethic. But there’s the real sense that he means every word. “Honestly, I love waking up in the morning knowing that I’ll be on stage and feel like you’re part of this history of storytelling. I walk home every night,” he says with a smile.

What free time he has, says Gyllenhaal, he spends with older sister Maggie, who in April gave birth to her second daughter, Gloria; big sister Ramona is almost 6. Gyllenhaal relocated from Los Angeles to New York City so he could be closer to his sister and brother-in-law, Peter Sarsgaard, and his mom. If you really want to see the softer side of the actor, ask Gyllenhaal about his parents and sibling.

“We have a new generation. My sister and I aren’t the youngest ones anymore. All those things came together in my life,” Gyllenhaal says. “It’s really cool to see my niece now because she really helps out. There’s this video that Peter sent me the other day. My older niece was playing with my younger niece. She would turn around and surprise her, and my younger niece was so in love with her. It gave me a perspective on how much I probably felt the same way about my sister, and I do still. That stuff never goes away.”

Gyllenhaal babysits, but not as much as he probably should. ” I was in L.A. for the premiere, and they were all together here last night. My niece is a little sick right now because she just started school again. I felt really torn — maybe I’m a bit of a mess, but there’s this family in this movie that I didn’t want to leave and I was talking to my family on the phone and thinking how much I missed them and loved them and wanted to be with them. I watched Brave on the plane on my way to Los Angeles, and all I could think about was my niece because that’s her favorite movie,” he says.

And if that’s not enough to win you over, Gyllenhaal also is adept behind the stove and is a foodie, in the non-annoying sense. John Lesher, who produced End of Watch and became close friends with Gyllenhaal, says the actor “always knows where to get the best food and the best cup of coffee. He cooks — I went to Seder dinner at his mom’s place and he made all the food, which was spectacular. He made brisket and all kinds of stuff. He’s very in touch with his Jewish side. He’s always questioning everything. He’s not neurotic. If he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it well.”

He’s curious and focused, adroitly discussing post-traumatic stress syndrome and the effect it has on those exposed to violence on a regular basis, like police officers. “He’s interested in everything going on in the world. You’re meeting Jake for dinner and then you’re sitting with K’naan, this Somali poet musician. You never know with Jake where something is going. Or you’re with his mom and his niece and making dinner and talking about the issues of the day. He’s a very decent person, which goes a long way,” says Lesher.

And now that he’s on a roll, Gyllenhaal has no intention of slacking off. He just wrapped the thriller An Enemy, another intense film about a man who discovers what appears to be a doppelganger living nearby. His mantra: Listen to yourself and follow your instincts.

“I did this movie October Sky with Chris Cooper. When I asked him for his actorly advice, he said, ‘Just don’t have any regrets.’ I don’t think I had any understanding of what that meant until very recently.This is one of the very first movies where I can say that I have very little regret. I’ve combed every corner. And that was for me,” he says.